One of my consolations in this strange and troubling year is discovering the pleasures of translated fiction. My pre-blog reading life (as I’ve noted before) was largely confined to the anglophone world, with a mild tilt towards British authors thanks to my devotion to The Guardian’s book section. Oh, I did read a translated novel here and there over the years, but when I did so it was almost always something from a European country; my two categories were either works that made a huge splash on my side of the Atlantic (Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny and Herman Koch’s The Dinner spring to mind) or one of those big, sprawling 19th century chunksters that so impress one’s colleagues during those stimulating Monday morning conversations around the water cooler. (“Did I happen to mention that I read War and Peace last weekend? Tolstoy has such a penetrating view of history, don’t you think?”) I very rarely read any contemporary fiction in translation and I almost never read anything, contemporary or classical, from a non-European country.
My, how things did change, once I started traveling through the blogosphere! It didn’t take long for me to see the riches I had been missing and to add a great many new titles to my ever expanding TBR mountain (thank you very much, dear Kaggsy, for your excellent recommendations!) And then, there was the fun of discovering new publishers, such as the Pushkin Press, the Fitzcarraldo and the Europa Editions (if any of you dear readers have other publisher recommendations, do please share). After dipping my toe into non-western waters last winter thanks to Dolce Bellezza Japanese Literature Challenge, I decided the time was ripe for a mild exploration of a few more translated works.
And what better time to start my adventure than in August, which is both Spanish literature and Women in Translation (WIT) month? In honor of both occasions, I’ve been having a lot of fun reading several works that fit into either category, with at least two novels (Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dreams and Maria Graina’s The Optic Nerve) that fit both. In addition to the thrill of discovering these new (to me) writers, I’m very much looking forward to reading all the great reviews that are currently popping up on some of my favorite blogs. Hopefully I’ll be sharing a few of my own thoughts on my discoveries in the upcoming weeks as well.
Because I’ve traveled fairly extensively in certain parts of Latin America (but have never, alas, visited Spain), I rather arbitrarily decided to focus on the former area in selecting my translated-from-Spanish novel. I also wanted to read a very contemporary writer who’s currently publishing rather than an established giant of the canon such as Borges, Llosa or Marquez. Earlier this summer I became interested in Andrés Neuman, an Argentinian novelist with strong ties to Spain, when I read a recent Guardian review of Fractures, his latest novel translated into English. In keeping with my general ignorance of international literature, I was amazed to discover just how much Neuman has written (he has over twenty works of fiction and non-fiction under his belt), the wide range of his talent (Neuman is a poet and essayist as well as a novelist) and just how highly he’s regarded by those who should know (Roberto Bolaño, no less, proclaimed that 21st century literature would belong to this guy and as if that wasn’t enough, Granta included him in Volume 113, its selection of the best young Spanish language writers). Despite this renown, however, only three of Neuman’s novels have currently been translated into English. A copy of the earliest of these, The Traveler of the Century, wasn’t readily available to me; between the two that were, I decided to begin with Talking To Ourselves based largely on whim (also, I must confess, I loved the cover photo, despite the insertion of those stupid conversation “balloons”).
Talking to Ourselves is one of those novels whose brevity is disproportionate to its impact. Clocking in at a mere 160 pages or so, it can be finished in an afternoon, but its reverberations continue long after you’ve read the last word. I found myself puzzling for days over various aspects of the story and finding new layers of (possible) meaning in various incidents or characters. I don’t want to suggest that Talking is a difficult read — it isn’t; there isn’t much external action and the number of characters is primarily limited to the eternal triangle of man, woman and child. Rather, like the great artist he is, Neuman works on many levels and leaves it up to to the reader to decide how deeply he or she wants to delve.
The novel opens with a quarrel between Mario and his wife Elena; Mario, it seems, wants to borrow his brother’s truck and take Lito, the couple’s ten year old son, on a road trip to deliver an unspecified cargo to a small, remote town far from the family home in Buenos Aires. Lito is very excited at the propect of this long-promised treat while Elena is very much opposed. We shortly learn that Mario is dying (almost certainly from cancer, although the cause is never specified); when the novel opens his disease is in (temporary) remission and he desperately wants to create a lasting memory for Lito to cherish after his father’s death. Mario and Lito embark on their journey while Elena, who remains behind, commences her own very different odyssey.
Lito, Mario and Elena each tell the unfolding story through his or her point of view (POV). This limited view point not only keeps the reader guessing but also deepens our understanding of certain incidents. Lito, for example, thinks his father reacts rudely to a “magician” they encounter on their road trip; Mario’s puzzling actions become clear later on when he narrates his own section and indicates his opinion that the “magician” is most probably a pedophile who’s hitting on his son. The shifting POV also imparts suspense into what might otherwise be a rather claustrophobic domestic drama by allowing the reader access to information Elena and Mario withhold from each other and from Lito (both parents, for example, lie to their son about the extent and nature of Mario’s illness and death).
Although Mario does the dying (he is, so to speak, the novel’s guest of honor), the novel really belongs to Elena, an academic manqué whose lack of conviction and desire to get married led her to abandon graduate study. Far more intellectual than Mario, Elena attempts to understand her grief by reading and reflecting on great works of literature. We know her thoughts through her journal entries, as we know Mario’s from the recordings he makes (after his death, these will ultimately be given to Lito) and Lito’s through his texts and stream of consciousness narration (it’s a mark of Neuman’s skill that he makes each character communicate in a way that reflects his or her personality). As Elena looks to literature to make sense of herself and her disintegrating world, the novel interweaves her thoughts about what she is reading with actual quotes from the works themselves. As Elena explains:
When a book tells me something I was trying to say, I feel the right to appropriate its words, as if they had once belonged to me and I was taking them back.
“She has already started to wear sunglasses indoors, like a celebrity widow,” I was startled to read in a short story by Lorrie Moore, sometimes I do the same, using my photophobia as an excuse, so that Lito won’t see my eyes. “From where will her own strength come? From some philosophy? From some frigid little philosophy?” Actually, I don’t get my strength from reading, but I do understand my weakness.
Although Neuman overdoes this device a bit, it’s a very interesting stream of consciousness technique that gives a real sense of immediacy to Elena’s reading (the novel contains a bibliography listing the works that Elena cites, which range from César Aira and Margaret Atwood to Hebe Uhart and Justo Navarro).
A major portion of Elena’s journal entries deal with a clandestine affair that begins shortly after Mario and Lito depart on their road trip. Despite feeling increasingly guilty about her actions, Elena responds to her husband’s approaching death by engaging in an intense, very physical affair that has heavy sadomasochistic overtones. As Elena explains (Talking at 44-45) in her journal, the physical and psychological pain she gives, and receives, from this affair resurrects and awakens her; she and her lover (who is experiencing a loss of his own) “cause each other pain in order to make sure we are still here.” I’m less morally repulsed than somewhat unconvinced by Elena’s actions, which strike me as a bit contrived (I found myself thinking that this novel was written by a man, after all, but then perhaps I’m being naive). It’s perhaps significant, perhaps not, that Elena’s lover is the one important character we see only from the outside; he alone has no voice. Although this may simply emphasize his relative unimportance vis-à-vis the bond between Elena and the dying Mario, for me at least his silence and the opacity of his emotions and motives increased my inclination to regard him as a rather artificial plot device.
Unsurprisingly for such a short novel, there’s a dearth of secondary characters. Elena’s parents and older sister, and Mario’s brothers, make brief, fleeting appearances or are referred to in passing. When they do appear, however, Neuman can bring them alive with a line or two. My favorite of these is Elena’s older sister. Never given a proper name, she quarrels with Elena and leaves her house in a huff after she learns of Elena’s affair; polite, dignified and insufferable, she informs Elena of her departure by text message. A subsequent exchange between the sisters conveys the essence of many sibling relationships:
Do you need money? my sister asked in that responsible tone my dad admires so much. No, I pretended, why do you ask? No reason, she replied, how much do you need? When I said the amount I felt odd, grateful, younger.
I’m afraid that my bare summary may leave you with the impression that the novel is melodramatic and emotionally bleak. If so, I’ve done a severe disservice to Neuman’s skill and subtlety. Talking is surprisingly funny in spots, an effect Neuman achieves in part by making Lito the narrator for part of the road trip with his father. I usually become pretty wary when a child protagonist appears, as all too often s/he is either too cute, unrealistically precocious or both. In Lito, however, Neuman finds the realistic (and very funny) balance between the awareness and the innocence of a ten year old, as this exchange between Lito and his father (Talking at 32) makes clear:
I send a text from Dad’s phone:
hi ma hw r u? we r awsm! saw ++s of grt plcs 2day dt worry dad nt drvg fst 🙂 xxxs luv u
Thank you my darling for your delicious message. Your mom is fine but she misses you loads. Be careful climbing in and out of Pedro [the truck]. I went swimming today. You are my angel, kiss Daddy for me.
Mom doesn’t know how to use the phone, I laugh. What do you mean? Dad says, she uses it every day. And she had one before you were born * * * Sure I say, but she doesn’t know. Her messages always have twenty or thirty letters too many. It’s more expensive. And she wastes about a hundred letters. * * * And you, I go on, don’t know how to use it either. Oh, heck, pardon me, he says, why? Let’s see, I say, where in the menu do you find the games? That’s unfair, he complains. Ask me about something I might have a use for. Okay, okay, I say. How do you copy your contacts list? He doesn’t say anything. You see? I say. Then I raise my arms and whoop like I’ve just scored a goal.